Is there any better lure for an exploitation movie junkie than the promise of a film that was allegedly deemed too ultra-violent to be rated? That was certainly the case with TENEMENT: GAME OF SURVIVAL — aka SLAUGHTER IN THE SOUTH BRONX, which, if you ask me, is a better title — , a very, very nasty 1985 grindhouse classic that was legitimately awarded an X rating by the MPAA for its foul language and generous lashings of sadism, gore, and humanity-degrading brutality. I'd never heard of it until it popped up a while ago as one of three films included in a "Grindhouse Psychos" boxed set, and my interest was piqued as I read a description of its plot. I love revenge movies and films about people trapped in a location where they're pitted against psychos or monsters and there's no way out other than to become as savage as their assailants, and that's exactly what we get with this low budget, balls-out visceral mamma-jamma. (I don't know how the fuck I missed this during its theatrical run, but I'm guessing it came out during the period in my third year of college where the only movie I saw in the theater was RE-ANIMATOR.)
The Gang: these guys make the droogs in A CLOCKWORK ORANGE look like choir boys by comparison. And is it just me, or does the guy with the red sash have a kind of Shabadoo Quinones thing going on?
The plot of TENEMENT is a study in exploitation movie simplicity: a bunch of totally '80's multi-racial thugs/gang members of the type common to films like VIGILANTE, SAVAGE STREETS and the sublime DEATH WISH 3 are hanging around in the basement of some South Bronx shithole tenement building — located in an area so desolate that it's nearly as surreal as the myth-ready wasteland in THE ROAD WARRIOR — snorting Angel Dust off of switchblades (no, really) and apparently eating rats (no, really) while making feeble attempts at break dancing, but otherwise not bothering anybody. The building's drunken Hispanic busybody of a superintendent calls the cops and has the gang busted, but the gang hears the approaching cops and has time to rid themselves of their stash and hide their weapons before their trip to the local precinct. The super mocks them to their faces as they're led away and the building's residents immediately throw a party to celebrate, secure in the knowledge that the gang is gone for good. Seeing as we're only about eight minutes into the movie at that point, it's no surprise to viewers when the gang is released a few hours later due to lack of evidence. Once freed, the gang scores some primo Angel Dust, gets staggeringly high (their leader has crazed, blood-filled visions), and embarks on a vicious mission of payback that sees them make their way up the tenement floor by floor, raping, killing and mercilessly torturing as they go.
That's pretty much it as far as the basic plot goes, so the bulk of the film is taken up with the building's residents being horribly slaughtered and finally banding together once they've had enough. As is par for the course with the urban terror genre, the tenement's residents are a corny collection of ethnic/religious stereotypes straight from Central Casting:
- an unwed, very pregnant Hispanic girl
- her "Ay-yi-yi"-accented mother
- the bitter black handyman who becomes the de facto leader of the residents.
- a tough-as-nails Jewish old lady from "the old country"
- a loving middle-aged black couple, of which the wife is a broad-beamed complainer who would be right at home in a Baptist revival meeting
- the savvy black single mother who fantasizes about moving to a Park Avenue apartment where she can raise her daughter in safety while drinking champagne all day
- a blind Hispanic man and his companion dog
- a number of cute kids for instant audience sympathy
- the once-well-off white girl who's become a whore in order to pay for her boyfriend's raging heroin habit
The only way this bit could have been more repulsive is if Chaco had wanked off between her blood-anointed tits.
The film is certainly not shy in the violence department and its "X" was earned due to that and relentless uses of "motherfucker" in the dialogue. According to director Roberta Findlay's commentary, there was actually a point when multiple uses of the F-bomb, especially when used in a maternally incestuous context, would ensure an X-rating, which would explain why RICHARD PRYOR LIVE IN CONCERT (1979) went out unrated. Then again, John Waters' A DIRTY SHAME (2004) reportedly earned its NC-17 for dialogue involving frank sexuality and concepts related to various kinky acts, so I guess things haven't really changed at all...
But the one sequence that really gained TENEMENT its X is one of the nastiest rape scenes ever committed to celluloid, and it's even more amazing/horrifying because it has such hideous impact without showing one bit of nudity. It's often been said that what the viewer can come up with in his or her imagination is far worse than anything a director can show directly onscreen, and that's proven true by this scene. The rapee is hauled into her bedroom by about four gang members and has her wrists tied as the assault begins, but a pair of sewing shears is within reach on her nightstand and she swiftly grabs them and plunges them through the eye and into the brain of her rapist, killing him stone dead. That was shocking enough, but then the remaining gang scum proceed to pummel her senseless before hitting upon the unsavory idea of killing her by unceremoniously shoving a broom handle into a place where such household items were in no way intended to go... This landmark in cinematic good taste occurs while the woman's five-year-old daughter hides in the closet, eventually coming out once the gang has taken their leave, there to discover her mother's horribly violated corpse.
Do I need to tell you I don't recommend this one as a date movie?
Following that bit of business and several other heinous atrocities, the tenants take the fight to the gang in earnest, resorting to blunt instruments, scalding water, a swiftly MacGyvered electrified fence, and other defenses before the day is eventually won by a handful of survivors.
Lesson learned: an old Jewish broad with a grip-taped baseball bat is a dangerous thing.
TENEMENT is a down-and-dirty, relentlessly vicious story that appeals to those who can handle it because it's simply impossible not to put yourself in the place of the besieged tenants. Made in the years before cell phones and during the days when a cut phone line meant no way of contacting help, this is an urban horror story that brings one back to the bygone time when New York City could still (almost) believably be depicted as an earthly manifestation of Hell itself. It's kind of a campfire horror story transplanted from the deep woods into the concrete jungle and as such it's very effective, provided one can stomach its excesses. I know I could, and stories about people resorting to savagery when backed against a wall have for some reason always spoken to some dark place deep within me, so if you also understand the appeal of that primal, on-the-defensive animal urge, by all means give TENEMENT: GAME OF SURVIVAL a look. It ain't great cinema by any means, but you can certainly do worse with a Netflix choice.